Saturday, November 17, 2012

A few of my favorite books - non-fiction

I like books, as you know.  I especially like books related to things I love to do.  Here are some of my favorites, listed by category (Can I also say that I like organized lists??).

Gardening:  I have lots of gardening books.  I mostly like them for the pictures but these are some that I have read and perused time and time again.
Perennials for Minnesota and Wisconsin by Don Engebretson and Don Williams - for those of us who garden in the upper Midwest, we are well aware of the challenges related to our climate.  It is cold in the winter, but blistering hot and humid in the summer.  After paging through many other gardening books, falling in love with particular plants only to find out they only grow in zone 9-10, I discovered this book.  I carry it with me to the garden center, I take it with me to the plant swaps (both to show other people what my plants will look like when they bloom and to look up their plants to make sure they are not horrid undesirable invasive species), I carry it in my gardening bag in case I need to check on a particular plants light or soil needs.  It is well-worn and indispensable.  And it has lots of pretty pictures.  Oh, and I like that the plants are listed by common name but the Latin names are included.  No more confusion about which plant is called "butterfly bush" (there are several - it is best to know the Latin names).
Month-by-Month Gardening in Minnesota by Melinda Myers is another indispensable guide for the northern gardener.  It is divided into sections (annuals, perennials, lawn, veggies and herbs, roses, trees, etc.) and then each section by month.  So if it is September, and I want to know what I should be doing with the cannas, I look in Bulbs, then September, and it tells me what to do with them once I pull them out.  So handy to have everything in one place.  I can never remember which shrubs to prune when or what is the best time to divide which plants. 
Encyclopedia of Flowers by Mary Moody is one that I enjoy even though it is one of them that I find flowers I love only to find out they only grow in Zone 9.  My favorite part of this book is that it is arranged by color, so if I want some red flowers for a hot bed in the front, I can find something I like (and check the zone to make sure it will grow here!).  I also like that this book has full color photos for all the flowers.
I also love Garden Gate magazine - helpful ideas from planning gardens, plant ideas, maintaining gardens and identification of pests and weeds.  And it has beautiful pictures!

Cooking:  I like cookbooks.  I especially like cookbooks with pictures.  I have lots and lots of cookbooks.  These are but a couple.
Betty Crocker's Cookbook - the classic"big red" has been my go-to cookbook since I learned to cook.  Betty has helped me master cream and cheese sauces, soups of various kinds (Corn Chowder is long-time favorite), waffles, biscuits, pizza crust and so many other basic things.  She's not crazy or trendy (not too many tofu recipes in old "big red" which, by the way, is fine with me!), she's just homey and simple.  This book is my definition of comfort food.  And when I got turnips in my CSA and thought, "what the heck do I do with turnips?" I turned to her first.
Taste of Home's Quick Cooking (2002)  I like this one a lot because it was free.  Ha!  Actually, a lot of recipes we use regularly are from this book.  They are quick, easy recipes; the index is awesome (what a geeky thing to say - but so true!) including an alphabetical index for when I know the name of the recipe AND a general index arranged by type of food (e.g., appetizers which are then divided into cold appys, dips and spreads, etc.,) and main ingredients (e.g., carrots, potatoes, ham, etc.,).  I have already posted some recipes from here.
Weight Watchers Pure Comfort: 150 All-time Feel-good favorites - a "diet" comfort foods book - what is not to love?  Pasta dishes, casseroles, sweets and breads, all with easy-to-follow instructions, Points values (old style), and other nutrition info.  These are the tasty dishes that make it easy to watch your diet and get the comfort foods you crave.
Betty Crocker magazines - you know - the little $4 ones that tempt you in the check-out lane at the grocery store.  I only have a couple, but they are well-loved.  Pictures with every recipe, an ever-changing theme (I have Simple Home-cooking which includes casseroles, stews, soups and the like, and a dessert one).  And only $4?  Come on!
Pampered Chef Season's Best - Okay, these are even cheaper than the little BC ones, only $1 but you may need a PC consultant and will probably buy more than just the cookbook.  Pampered Chef has a new one of these little babies every 6 mos.  I have about 10 of them (I used to sell them, remember??) and there are definitely some recurring recipes so they are not 100% new every time, and they do, of course, promote PC equipment.  But I like them and for a dollar you can't go wrong.
I also like Bon Appetit magazine, as I have stated before

Knitting: Knitting books are awesome.  They always have pictures (I am, apparently, all about the pictures) and they give me great ideas and excuses to buy yarn.  I love yarn - I like to handle it, I like to knit it, I occasionally like to crochet it, and I apparently collect it.  All my yarn has a purpose and some of the purposes can be found in these books.  Now if I could get around to using that yarn...
Stitch 'N Bitch Nation by Debbie Stoller - I bought this one instead of the original Stitch 'N Bitch because I liked more of the patterns.  But now that I look at it, I have only made one thing out of this book and that pattern I adapted for my own use (I made what I call "cell phone cozies" and what they call "Mobile Monsters" but instead of the pig or the rabbit they had patterns for, I made my own orange cats - one for my sister and one for me).  But there are really fun patterns in here that I fully intend to make someday - Bzzz Hat for Queen Bees (a hat that looks like a beehive), Later 'Gator Mitts (mittens that look like alligators), Bunny Hat (for babies - guess what it looks like), Fuzzy Dice (for my hubby's truck - LOL!), and a really cool felted, monogrammed bag that looks like a retro bowling ball bag (Letter Have It).  I guess I like apparel and accessories that look like other objects or creatures.  I also like this book (and the original) for the "knitty gritty" how-to section.  I refer to it when I can't remember all the methods of cast on or seaming.
Knitting for Baby - by Melanie Falick and Kristin Nicholas.  This book has the most adorable babies! And some super cute patterns too.  In addition to the little Harvard Square Cardigan that makes baby look like a little professor, the most beautiful Nordic Snowflake Pullover, and classic Aran Pullover in an un-classic color of green, there are plenty of easy and accessible patterns for blankets, hats, booties and toys.  There is a family of teddy bears that I feel I need to knit at least 7 of them some day (different sizes and colors, of course).

Books about books: This is a somewhat odd category and I don't have a lot of books that fit the category but here are a couple.
Book Lust by Nancy Pearl - written by a librarian and organized by category, this book is a resource of what to read next.  It has an index listing authors and books mentioned in the book, so I have often looked up books or writers I have enjoyed to see what else Ms. Pearl recommends.  For example, I love To Kill a Mockingbird, so when I looked it up, I found a bunch of recommendations under topics "Girls Growing Up", top 10 books written in the 1960s, "Southern Fiction" and "What a Trial that was!"  I have started checking off the books I have read in the index, with my apparent goal to read all the hundreds of books mentioned before I die.
Read To Me: Raising kids who love to read by Bernice Cullinan - I know I do not have children, but I bought this when I was a potentially aspiring children's librarian and have used it when deciding what books to get for children of friends.  It is a good resource for books that may help your child learn to love read, and also for read-aloud books for preschoolers to preteens (I admit I copied some of that from the back of the book).  It has tips on how to get started reading to children, how to make reading a part of your busy life, and lists of books for different age groups.
Along a similar vein but with much more extensive lists is Valerie and Walter's Best Books for Children: A lively, opinionated guide by Valerie Lewis and Walter Mayes.  There are more than 2000 books listed here for children from birth to age 14, with notes on themes (so if you have someone very interested in pirates, for example), reading, listening and interest levels (as you may have discovered, what makes a book good to read is not necessarily the same as what makes a book good to listen to) and also more tips on how pass along the gift of reading to your kids.

Empty books: These are books that started out empty but that I love to buy and sometimes fill.  I have, among others, a book journal (thoughts of books I have read), a food journal (ideas on recipes I have tried and lists of types of recipes (for example, chicken recipes, appetizer recipes, dessert recipes) with location of recipe for easy reference), a gardening journal (what plants are where, how they have done, if I would plant them again, what I would do differently), a knitting journal (lists of projects I could work on if time and interest available, list of needle sizes and types, pattern ideas and sketches.  I could also keep a list of finished projects here but for some reason I have not yet done that.), a wine journal (this one has not yet been started but will someday contain thoughts on wines we have tried - what E thinks, what I think - where we tried them, if we bought them (or would consider buying them or buy them again)), a writing journal (could call this one a "personal" journal but sometimes I just use it for free writing, brainstorming, or other writing exercises).  I think I have an empty book addiction.

So, those are a few of my favorites and this list was in no way exhaustive.

Maybe you have someone on your gift-giving list who might find one of these interesting, or maybe you yourself might like one or two.  If you have opinions on any of these or others you recommend that I might like (or other ideas for my blank book obsession), please let me know.

Happy reading!

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Obviously I am busy...

I must be busy with many things if I am not blogging much, right?  Just what am I doing? 

Work is getting busier again.  I am also vice president of the local chapter of the underwriters' association this year which means my main job is lining up the venues for our meetings and coordinating all that goes with that (menu choices, getting accurate counts on number of attendees from the treasurer, etc.).  There was a lot of time spent researching, calling, comparing and touring multiple potential facilities for our day-long seminar coming up in May.  I got free coffee and some cookies while doing the tours (on a "vacation" day from work) but otherwise, there is no compensation for this work.  It is not easy to plan events for 150 people!

Our main bathroom shower/tub area is finally complete!  It has been awhile but the tile is in (and looks gorgeous, I think), and the fixtures are installed so we are once again showering upstairs.  I won't even say how long this has been in the works.  If you have been here, you know.  Now we are coordinating with electrician, tiler and plumber to get the rest of the room to look as nice as the shower.  Of course this involves multiple trips to various stores to pick out the lights, vanity, faucets, tile, etc., that we need and also will require a bit of work on our part.  So it is fun and time-consuming.

Here are the other less boring-sounding things I have been doing.

Reading: I am reading a bit.  As of the end of October, I have read 36 books this year.  Or I should clarify, I have finished 36 books this year.  Some books were started last year and took a long time to finish because I would only read them in the car to E.  Here are some I have read but not blogged about with short commentary on each.
Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson - My choice for book club.  I liked this book a lot.  It is definitely a different writing style than I typically read (hard to describe.  The author is Norwegian, so I don't know if that explains it or not.) and the story/plot was subtle but I am glad I read it and that I chose it for book club so there were additional thoughts added to the ones I had on my own.  The story is told from the point of view of one man, Trond, in two time periods: in the present as a 60-some-year-old-man, and as a 15-year-old after WWII during a particularly life-defining time of his life.
This Must be the Place by Kate Racculia- I don't remember how this one got on my list of books to read but it was a pretty easy read with interesting characters and a plot that kept me guessing a bit. I sometimes like it when I don't figure out what is going to happen and how it is going to go.  The main character is a quirky teenage girl whose mother owns a boardinghouse.  A man they do not know checks in and inadvertently turns their lives upside down and challenges things they thought they knew about themselves.
Candide by Voltaire - I have had this book since college and just read it for the first time, in English, not in French (I think the French version is also around here somewhere.)  I have seen the musical at least twice but the satire in the book is much stronger.  And, yes, the songs did occasionally run through my head while I was reading.
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous - a classic.  Somehow I did not read this in high school like most people seem to have.  I would have been even more freaked out about drugs if I had read this then - it was bad enough I saw the after-school special where the girl jumps out the window after taking PCP.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson - This is the one I was reading to E.  So glad I didn't work for Jobs, though I truly enjoy my iPod and admire his genius. 
Marley & Me by John Grogan - Sorry, dog lovers.  This dog mainly annoyed me and I did not get upset or sad when he died.  This was another one we read for Friday night book club.  I think we are done with the series of animal books now. 
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer - This is one that had been recommended to me by multiple people over the past couple years.  So glad I finally read it!  I liked the epistolary form of the book.  The characters, time and setting were all interesting.  An interesting time in history told from a unique perspective.  I chose this one for Friday night book club after I had read half of it.  Hope the other members read it!
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan - Current book for Sunday night book club.  Another interesting historical perspective, the same time frame as Guernsey but instead of post-Nazi-occupation of an island in the English Channel, this one takes place in the US.  The story is seamless told from multiple characters perspectives and one of the main storylines follows a young African-American who has fought in WWII on the European front and is now returning to his sharecropper family's home in Mississippi.
Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut - I remember reading this one multiple times in high school and college but had not read it in a long time.  I don't remember what I liked so much about it back then, but I think I liked it differently on this reading.  And I had Sparks Notes to help understand it more now, too.  And looking back at this list, satire and WWII appear to be the recurrent themes. 

started at the center and knit in the round

Knitting: Now that the weather has turned cooler and my hands are less dirty from gardening, I have done a bit of knitting.  At E's request I made a baby afghan for the newborn daughter of one of his friends.  It was a simple pattern and turned out even cuter than I expected.  I first read about this one in Knitalong: Celebrating the Tradition of Knitting Together by Larissa Golden Brown.  This was a book we read when I was in the Knit Lit book club/knitting group a few years back.  When I pulled the book out to get the pattern for the blanket, the discussion questions I had created were still in there including one to provoke discussion about a time when knitting has reformed one's character, either by keeping her out of trouble or by helping her relax or heal. Anyway, my pinwheel blanket was knit with a soft chunk yarn on size 11 circular needles.  I knit while listening at my Mini-Medical School class and while watching TV.  I think the baby was waiting for me to be done knitting because she was a bit late, arriving the day after I finished binding off. Welcome to the world, baby girl!  

Weeding: Not much happening in the garden this time of year but I did finish fall clean up, harvested about 3 dozen potatoes and about 10 pounds of carrots, and helped E with the leaves. 

That is a little bit of what I have been doing lately.  Here's hoping I put blogging as a higher priority in the new year, if not before.

Until we read again,

When Life Gives You Kale, part 2;

Eating: You may recall a few weeks back, part one of this post, about what to do with abundances of certain types of produce.  Well, now I have a bunch of beets (actually, I still have roasted beets in the freezer from last year) and some large cabbage, as well as several pounds of apples we picked.  Here are some more recipes in the same spirit as When Life Gives You Kale, Make Kale Chips.  I am thinking of cross-stitching that saying and hanging on the wall.  By the way, I really really like that roasted tomato soup recipe I posted last time.

Beets.  Was there ever a  vegetable that divided groups of people more?  Well, maybe brussel sprouts but more on those later.  Beets seem to be something you like or something you definitely do not like.  I like beets.  I liked them canned when I was a kid, I like pickled beets, I like them in a salad.  But...there is a such thing as too many beets for me.  I think part of it is that I don't know a lot of ways to prepare them and so when I have a lot of them, I am overwhelmed and get tired of the roasted-beets-as-side-dish preparation.  So I found something new to do with them: Roasted Beet Borscht.  In the same vein as carrot soup and zucchini soup, this is a pureed soup.  I made one sample batch to see if I like it (made with a very large golden beet - it was a very beautifully colored soup), then made a triple batch and froze most of it for later (mix of red and gold beets, deep red color, also quite lovely).  Recipe is courtesy Tyler Florence of Food Network.  Have I mentioned that I love Tyler?
Roasted Beet Borscht (for when life gives you beets)
1 pound beets
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 sprigs fresh thyme
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
6 cups chicken stock (I cheated and used chicken base/bouillon and hot water)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
To roast the beets (same as I do when I make them for a side dish), heat oven to 400.  Scrub beets and place them on a pan. Salt and pepper and drizzle with 3 T olive oil.  Add 3 sprigs of thyme. Bake until the beets are tender, about 1 hour (depends on the size of the beets).
When the beets are cool enough to handle, slip off their skins, and chop them into large chunks.
In a large heavy bottomed pot over medium heat, add the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Put in the onion, carrots, garlic, and remaining 3 thyme sprigs and cook until softened and just starting to color, about 10 minutes. Add the chicken stock and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs. Put the chopped beets into a blender and add the cooked vegetables and most of the stock (SMALL BATCHES!! to avoid soup scald shower). Blend until smooth, add more stock if the puree is too thick. Add the vinegar and honey; season with salt and pepper. Blend again to incorporate flavors. Can serve hot or cold. (The borscht is good without the vinegar and honey but definitely add those because it enhances the flavor A LOT.)

You can also make a garnish for this (I did not do this part, because it was just for me - I don't need to be so fancy eating my lunch). Grate a Granny Smith apple on the large holes of a grater and mix 2 T chopped fresh dill.  Add a big dollop of sour cream to each bowl of soup and top with the apple and dill mixture.

I was also going to blog cabbage recipes but realized I did that last year, so if life has given you cabbage, check out Cabbages Galore for recipes for a soup that uses carrots and for the very handy Freezer Cole Slaw recipe. 

I know everyone likes apples, so an abundance of apples is probably not a problem, but here are a few of my recipes and ideas for when you hit the orchard in the fall and pick way more than you really know what to do with.  Not that I would ever do that...

Apple Cake - two different recipes posted here.

Taffy Apple Pizza - an old Pampered Chef recipe that I have made many many times and previously blogged here

Grandma Nellie's Apple Crisp
(I received this recipe from my mother-in-law as part of a bridal shower gift and it is the only apple crisp E likes because it does not have oatmeal in it.  I lost the recipe and had to call my MIL to get it again.  Grandma Nellie's original lacked a few directions, so this is slightly modified.  I will give you cooking temp and time, for example.)
Fill bottom of a 8x8 or 9x9 pan with sliced, pared, cored apples.  Sprinkle with 1 C sugar (lately I have cut this back to 1/2 or 2/3 C) and sprinkle with cinnamon (lots of cinnamon if you are making this for E).
Combine: 1 C flour
1/2 t baking powder
1/2 C butter (I melt it in the microwave first)
1/2 C brown sugar
1/2 t salt
Mix until forms crumbles.  Crumble over the apples.  Bake at 375 for 45 minutes until the top is golden.

I make mine in the crock pot because then I don't have to watch it so closely and it makes the whole house smell delicious!  This year I bought a food mill which is not necessary but does make the sauce smoother and (maybe more importantly) I don't have to peel the apples or worry about getting all of the seeds and core out.  I just use the apple wedger.  I also make mine without added sugar.  Then I can use it in recipes without altering the sugar content of the recipe.  And you can always stir in a little brown sugar to taste.
Wedge/core about 10 apples (peel if not using a food mill).  Place in crock pot along with about 1/2 C water.  Cover and cook on high for 4 hours.  If not using the food mill, you can mash with a potato masher or use an immersion blender.  Cool and store in refridgerator or freezer.  I freeze mine in 1 1/2 C portions in freezer bags.  That is what I use to make muffins.

Applesauce Streusel Muffins are yummy and the recipe is here.  I usually mix up the batter on a Saturday morning and bake half the muffins then and half again on Sunday morning. 

Now I am hungry. 

Until we eat again,

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Whatcha Readin'?

Reading: As a member of 2 book clubs, I am often asked, and often ask others, "Whatcha readin'?"  It seems readers like to talk about what they are reading and to find out what others are reading, mainly to get more ideas to stack on the nightstand.  I like talking about books (thus 2 book clubs) and recommended books to other people.  I don't recommend the same books to everyone but try to figure out what they would like.  Here are some of my recent reads:

In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan - You may recall one of my book clubs read The Botany of Desire by the same author earlier this year.  I missed the discussion of that book due to illness in the house but it seems it was not a popular book.  I found In Defense to be better written, easier to follow.  Perhaps he had the benefit of a better editor or a more cohesive idea for a book this time.  The subtitle of this one is "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants."  He defines what constitutes food (no big surprise, most of the "food" in the grocery store is not really food, so much as manufactured goods) and goes on to tell you why.  It was a pretty interesting book, though I think there is a lot out there these days about "clean eating" and similar concepts.  It made me think about what I eat and about all the nutrition buzz we hear constantly everywhere.  It made me think about how we receive contradictory messages about what is "good for you" and wonder how did humankind survive all this time before nutritionists started telling us what to eat?  And why, when the experts started telling us what we should eat, did we all start to get fat?  Overall, good food for thought.  Sorry, couldn't resist the pun.

I read Dewey: the small-town library cat who touched the world by Vicki Myron in the middle of the summer.  I liked this book a whole lot.  Such an endearing story of a pretty amazing cat and how he really did touch the world from the library in a town few outside the Midwest have heard of (Spencer, Iowa).  As with any true-life pet story, tears are guaranteed.We meet Dewey Readmore Books when he is found in the book drop on a bitterly cold morning with his paws severely frostbitten, and follow his story through the political struggles to keep him at the library, through his naughty antics and picky habits as well as his warm social nature, watching as he repairs relationships and brings people from around the world to the library. 

The Friday night dinner/book club decided after reading Dewey to continue on an animal theme and we read We Bought a Zoo by Benjamin Mee next.  I have not seen the movie but from those who have seen the movie and read the book, the book is, as usual, better.  If you are unfamiliar with the story (or have only seen the movie), it is the non-fiction story of a British family who bought a broken down zoo and how they repaired and rebuilt it.  Not only are there struggles with the animals, but also with the banks and regulatory officials as the family fights to secure the money they need to make the repairs they need to get pass the inspection they need to open the zoo so that they can make money to keep the zoo going.  (I know, you are impressed with my seriously long run-on sentence.)  And in the midst of this, the author's wife, mother to his 2 young children, has a recurrence of a serious brain tumor.  I found myself becoming distraught, not knowing if they were going to make it and have a successful zoo, all while learning about how zoos and animal conservation work, and knowing in the back of my mind that of course it will all work out.  Won't it?

I re-read a childhood favorite by my favorite author, Judy Blume.  I must have read Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great more than a dozen times, but haven't read it in probably over 25 years.  Yet as soon as I opened to the first page, I knew these sentences by heart, as if I had read them just a week before.  Loved it just as much now as then.

So those are just a few of the books I have read in the last two months.  More on the others at another time.

Eating: It is apple season.  We picked several pounds at the orchard last week with our friends and their five-year-old daughter.  E and I got a large bag of Haralsons for baking and a smaller bag of Connell Red for eating.  When we got home, the little one and I got busy baking apple cupcakes.  She loves to run the Apple Peeler/Corer/Slicer and is big on stirring, also.  She made one of the cupcakes extra big, stating that was for E, and helped stir when I was making the frosting.  We used Grandma Nellie's Apple Cake recipe with the caramel frosting.  Super tasty, especially when the cupcakes are still warm or reheated.  This was the first time I had made this recipe (first blogged about on A is for Apple Cake) and it took a little trial and error to figure out how long to bake cupcakes versus a 13x9 cake but I think it was around 30 minutes.  Set the timer for 20 minutes and add 3-4 minutes as needed until the cupcakes spring back when you touch them in the middle.  The caramel frosting is SO GOOD. 

Tonight I will make some apple crisp and plan to make some applesauce too.  I will use some of the applesauce to make the applesauce streusel muffins.  Expect a future blog post with apple recipes.

Weeding:  The asters are a sea of deep purple and the sedum is various shades of red.  The green/burgundy leaves of the penstemon are a lovely bright red now and some of the mums are blooming again.  There is a bit of color in the garden yet!  There is a bit of clean up to be done as well, and we have started to harvest potatoes on an "as-needed" basis.  I need to figure out what to do with all the carrots and it is probably time to pull out the tomato plants.  It is a beautiful warm day, so I will leave you now and go out to the garden. 

Enjoy the autumn!

Until we eat again,

Monday, September 10, 2012

When Life Gives You Kale, Make Kale Chips

Eating: This blog post (it may be a series of posts, depending on what else I think of) was inspired by the bounty of kale from the CSA earlier this summer.  I had never received kale before and didn't know what to do with it.  As with everything I get in the CSA, I first try it, just a nibble to see what it tastes like - bitter, in this case.  So then I consult Big Red (aka Betty Crocker cookbook) to see what Betty has to say about it.  Her preparation suggestion is to steam it with only the water left on it after washing.  So I do this.  Then, my house smells like gym socks.  Yuck.  I try another bite and still find it bitter and not to my taste at all (and I will eat most anything).  So I stick it in the fridge, awaiting some inspiration.  Or until it gets moldy and I throw it out.  There has to be a better way, right?  Then my friend Beth told me about kale chips.  By this time, it was too late for my kale, but when I get it next year, I will be prepared.  Beth eats them like she would potato chips.

Kale Chips (recipe from
1 head kale, washed and thoroughly dried
2 T. olive oil
Sea salt, for sprinkling
Preheat oven to 275.  Remove the ribs from the kale and cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces. Lay on a baking sheet and toss with the olive oil and salt. Bake until crisp, turning the leaves halfway through, about 20 minutes. Serve as finger food.

This got me thinking about the other things I get loads of all at once and never seem to know what to do with.  Thus the post, which could also have been titled "When life gives you radishes, grill them" or "When life gives you tomatoes, make soup." Here are some tried and true ideas for excesses of many summer veggies.

Refrigerator Pickles (for when life gives you cucumbers) Recipe from
6 C. thinly sliced unpared cucumbers
3 small onions, chopped
2 T. salt
1 C. vinegar (I used cider vinegar)
Combine cucumber slices and onion in ice cream pail or large (non-metal) bowl.  Mix sugar, salt and vinegar.  Pour over cucumbers.  Stir well.  Cover and refrigerate - they will be ready in 3 hours but taste even better if left overnight.  Will keep in fridge 2-3 months. (After we ate the first batch, I reused the juice and just added more cuke slices and onion to it.)

Grilled Radishes (for early summer when life gives you radishes) Recipe adapted from
20 oz radishes, sliced (I always just slice enough until it looks right - you know me and measuring)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. butter, cut into small pieces
Place all ingredients in foil folded to make an envelope.  Seal around the edges.  Place on heated grill and cook until radishes are tender. 

I can only eat so many raw radishes and I add them to salads when I can, but again, can only eat so many.  The grilled radishes are really good.  Even if you think you do not like radishes, you should try them grilled or sauteed.  The flavor is much more mellow.  The other way I started eating them (after realizing I could cook them - duh!) is sliced up and sauteed with a bunch of other veggies.  For lunch on work days, I would just go to the fridge and start chopping and slicing whatever veggies I found, sometimes mixing a scrambled egg in with it for a little protein.  Good combinations with the radishes (mostly because they are ripe at the same time) included carrots, broccoli, onions, green or wax beans, summer squash or zucchini.

Speaking of zucchini, who hasn't had an abundance of zucchini at some point?!  Yikes, this stuff can sure take over your life.  Here are some of my favorite recipes using zucchini, and often also tomatoes or cherry tomatoes which are in season often at the same time.

The first one I am just going to link to here.  Gnocchi with Zucchini Ribbons and Parsley Brown Butter is easy and so good!  Follow the recipe exactly and you will have super tasty results. As I read some of the comments on the website, I thought, well, duh!  If you take out or substitute a bunch of stuff, of course it is not the same recipe anymore and you can't really complain that it had no flavor or wasn't very good.  That is your own fault.  Brown butter, when cooked as per instructions, has  A LOT of flavor on its own.  As I said in my review of the recipe, "I made this for dinner for a friend and myself. Super easy and very tasty, made following the recipe exactly. Use real butter (a substitute is a poor substitute in my mind, since so much flavor is from the browned butter) and use real fresh grated Parmesan (the stuff in the green can tends to be dry and sucks the flavor out of most dishes). The recipe is a terrific use of zucchini and cherry tomatoes, both of which I tend to have in over-abundance at the same time in the summer. Love it and will make it again and again."

A new zucchini recipe received from Ann at book club is also a soup.  And y'all know how I love soup!  I believe Ann got this recipe from her CSA.  It is prepared similarly to how I make my carrot soup.

Zucchini Basil Soup
2 pounds zucchini/summer squash (reminder to myself to buy a kitchen scale)
3/4 C chopped onion
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 C olive oil
4 C water, divided (I don't think you need God's intervention to divide or part this amount of water)
1/3 C packed basil leaves
Julienne skin (only) from half of zucchini with slicer; toss with 1/2 tsp. salt and drain in a sieve until wilted, at least 20 minutes (note: I did not do the julienning part of this recipe at all).  Coarsely chop remaining zukes. 
Cook onion and garlic in oil in a 3-4 quart heavy saucepan over med-low heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add chopped zucchini and 1 tsp salt and cook, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes.  Add 3 C. water and simmer, partially covered, until tender, about 15 minutes.  Puree soup with basil in small batches in a blender. (Caution: only do small batches and hold onto the lid when you do this - it may explode in a hot shower of soup.  Not fun.)
Bring remaining cup water to a boil in a small saucepan and blanch julienned zucchini 1 minute.  Drain in a sieve set over a bowl (use liquid to thin soup if necessary).  Season soup with salt and pepper.  Serve in shallow bowls with julienned zucchini mounded on top (I did not do the julienned part of this.)

And of course, when life gives you tomatoes, make Chicken Pasta Fresca (or whatever this one is called) which is so tasty you will want to lick the bowl clean, or try salsa or soup.  I will post E's Blender Salsa at a later time.  I seem to have misplaced it (just had it this morning...)

Roasted Tomato Soup (This is so good I plan to make several batches and freeze them for use with grilled cheese sandwiches this winter.) - Recipe from Tyler Florence,
2 1/2 pounds fresh tomatoes (mix of any kind)
6 cloves garlic, peeled
2 small yellow onions, sliced
1/2 C olive oil (I found this to be way more than I needed - drizzle to cover tomatoes, maybe about 1/4 C)
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1 quart chicken stock
2 bay leaves
4 T. butter
1/2 C chopped fresh basil leaves (optional - I used as much basil as I could harvest off my little plant, about 1/4 C)
3/4 C heavy cream, optional (I will not add this before freezing but will stir in some cream when reheating)
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.  Wash, core and cut the tomatoes into halves. Spread the tomatoes, garlic cloves and onions onto a baking tray. Drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until caramelized.
Remove roasted tomatoes, garlic and onion from the oven and transfer to a large stock pot (I used a slotted spoon so I didn't scoop all the excess oil in as well). Add 3/4 of the chicken stock (in other words, 3 cups), bay leaves, and butter. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes or until liquid has reduced by a third.
Wash and dry basil leaves, if using, and add to the pot. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup until smooth (if you don't have an immersion blender, puree in small batches in a regular blender.  Remember SMALL batches, and hold on to the cover to avoid a scalding soup shower). Return soup to low heat, add cream and adjust consistency with remaining chicken stock, if necessary. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Just last night at book club, someone asked what to do with eggplant.  Ann suggested roasting it.  I suggested ratatouille.  I love it because it uses a bunch of veggies which are all ready and abundant at the same time.  Here is the easiest recipe I have for it.

Ratatouille - Recipe from Betty Crocker cookbook
1 medium eggplant, about 1 1/2 pounds, washed, pared if desired, and cut into 1/2" cubes
2 small zucchini, about 1/2 pound, washed, cut off stem and blossom end, cube or slice
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped (about 1 C)
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 medium tomatoes, each cut into eighths
1/4 C olive oil
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 clove garlic, crushed
Cook all ingredients in large skillet (I use my wok) over medium heat 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until zucchini is tender.  Serve warm or cold.  (I freeze portions of this for eating all winter long.  Also would be good over pasta.)

That is all for now.  Enjoy the bounties of the season and may we never have moldy kale again!

Until we eat again,

Monday, September 03, 2012

Summer Salads and Reading Review

Eating: I like salads, most any kind, and summer is a great time to try new ones, with all the fresh veggies and herbs from the CSA and garden.  I like to make the salad the meal so I tend to add meat to pasta salads, to give it a bit more substance.  Here are some of my favorite summer salads.

In the spring/early summer, we get a lot of leafy greens in the CSA because that is what grows that time of year in Minnesota.  Then it gets hot and the lettuces bolt, get bitter and are done, so we enjoy the green salads while we can.  This year we got several different types: Romaine, red romaine, beet greens, kale, leaf lettuce.  Plus we grew arugula and leaf lettuce.  Since it is so fresh when we get it, the lettuces last way longer than the stuff from the store would.  I always triple rinse the greens, sprinkling table salt in the water the first rinse to kill off any bugs or lettuce worms that may be hiding in there (I have only found one or 2 in the past 2 years, but I am not interested in THAT kind of protein in my salads), and spin it out thoroughly with my salad spinner.  I then shred the whole thing and put it in a sealed bowl in the fridge, so it is ready to go for any lunch or dinner at anytime.  This is the key, for me.  If it is not ready to eat easily, I will not eat it.  I am lazy, as I have said before.  Composing the salads, then, is an individual process.  Each of us makes his or her own salad (we often do this with guests, too), choosing from the other fresh chopped veggies available.  Early in the season this means green onions, radishes, peas or pea pods, zucchini, broccoli, summer squash, cukes, carrots.  Sometimes there is a little fresh dill, maybe an early bell pepper or some grape tomatoes.  We will add a little corn (frozen corn, rinsed to thaw), croutons, slivered almonds, cheese, maybe some chopped chicken or deli ham, some crispy crumbled bacon (from the last time I used bacon in a recipe and then fried up the remaining and stuck it in the freezer) then top it with the dressing of our choice (I like mine with my own creation of salsa ranch - you can probably guess how I make it).  I have been known to eat my lunch salad out of a serving bowl because it sometimes gets a little large.  You get the idea.  The key for us is to chop the veggies up ahead of time so we can just focus on building the salads when it is time to eat.

Pasta salads are great anytime, but especially after the greens are done for the first part of the summer.  I like tuna macaroni salad.  E does not.  So I make it for myself.  Tuna, well-drained, medium shell pasta (no, it doesn't have to be shells but they say "summer" to me more than other shapes), chopped celery if I have it, a little onion, frozen or fresh peas.  This last time I even tossed in some chopped tomato, because I have a whole lot of tomatoes right now.  Then the dressing, as my mom taught me - a "glob" of mayo (I use Miracle Whip because I like it better), little bitsies of milk until it is the right consistency to pour but not too runny, a sprinkle of sugar until you can't taste just the mayo, salt and pepper.  That's it. 

The easiest pasta salad is one that E likes.  We mix the pasta with some chopped meat (leftover smoked sausage or kielbasa/Polish sausage, thick sliced deli ham (I ask for one slice 1/4" thick), rotisserie chicken, or whatever), frozen corn rinsed to thaw, chopped or julienned carrots, shredded cheese.  Then we top it with enough ranch dressing to cover and sprinkle with slivered almonds for crunch.  Naturally you could add whatever else you like - celery, onions, peas, chopped tomatoes, (drain them well or it will get soupy), peppers, etc.

Another one of E's favorite pasta salads is Satay Chicken Pasta Salad, though I recently found out that he doesn't actually like it cold as a salad and will heat it up when he takes it for lunch.  Whatever.  I like it as a salad.  The recipe is from Pampered Chef, Season's Best Fall 2008.  My adaptations are in parentheses.

Satay Chicken Pasta Salad
8 oz. farfalle (bow tie pasta), uncooked
1 C light Asian vinaigrette (I make my own Asian-style dressing, sometimes)
2 T Asian seasoning (from Pampered Chef, though I am sure there are other versions available)
2 T peanut butter (creamy blends best)
2 medium carrots, peeled
1 medium red bell pepper
1/2 C dry roasted peanuts
1 C lightly packed fresh basil
3 C diced cooked chicken

Cook and cool the pasta (unless you are making it for E, then don't cool it).  Combine vinaigrette, Asian seasoning, and peanut butter.  Mix well.  Julienne the carrots, dice the peppers, chop the peanuts and basil.  Add all to the pasta and mix well.  You can reserve a bit of the peanuts and basil for garnish, if you like. 

Reading: Last time I wrote, I promised to write about 3 books that I read earlier this summer (in June and early July).  I have only read a handful since that time so should be able to catch up with those soon, as well.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is a novel about an Indian family, the Gangulis, who has immigrated to the United States.  Most of the story follows Gogol, the son who is born in America, from the time of his birth, until his early 30s, as he struggles with fitting in, being stuck between the culture of his parents and that of the country they are now living in, and with the curse of his name (after Russian author, a name which causes problems for him from the minute he is born).  There were mixed reviews of this one in our book club, but I enjoyed the story, both Gogol's story (interesting to think about how our names define us and shape our lives), as well as his parents' stories.  Parts of the story could be the story of any immigrant's experience, the struggle of the younger generation to fit in, often defying their parents' "old-fashioned" wishes and ways, but I was interested in learning about the culture and food of the eastern Indians, too.  I would recommend this one.

I re-read Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz for Friday night book club, because it had been several years since I read it and all I remembered about it was that I liked it and it took place in Wisconsin.  Those things were still true on the second reading of it.  Only Mary and I met for this book club discussion, but we both enjoyed it.  This novel is well-written and intriguing.  On the surface, the story is that of Ruth and her aunt Amanda, living on the family farm after Ruth's mother has drowned.  Ruth's father returns from fighting in World War II to his daughter whom he has never really met (she was a baby when he enlisted) and his wife's sister who doesn't appear to like him much.  What we are led to believe, from the perceptions and actions of the main characters, may or may not be the truth.  Why does Ruth say she remembers drowning when in reality it is her mother who drowned?  Why doesn't anyone go out to the little house on the island anymore?  Why is Amanda so protective of Ruth?  Little by little we learn the story of these strong, well-drawn characters.  And what we learn may challenge our belief that we can ever really know anyone.

Onto a completely different kind of book, No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels by Jay Dobyns.  This was different that most any other book we have read for book club.  It wasn't well-written (though that is not what made it different from some of the books we have read), but it was definitely interesting.  I don't know about you, but I was not that familiar with the Hells Angels, or indeed any OMG (Outlaw Motorcycle Gang).  I didn't know how they operated (apparently with a surprising number of rules, a specific hierarchy, and with more drugs, violence and misogyny than necessary), or what it took to become a part of a gang.  I also knew very little about undercover work.  I learned a lot about both from this book, and it was intriguing.  There is a lot more to the gangs than riding loud Harleys in large, intimidating groups, and a lot more to undercover work than wearing the clothes of the group you are infiltrating.   I have added a similar book to my list of books to read someday: Under and Alone: The True Story of the Undercover Agent Who Infiltrated America's Most Violent Outlaw Motorcycle Gang, by William Queen. 

Weeding: The stump garden has progressed some - we have 5 shrubs and a beautiful hardy hibiscus planted so far.  The entire area has been cleared, leveled/graded, weeded, mulched and edging installed.  We have plotted out where the walkways are going, decided to put the water feature in where the fire pit was planned (moving the fire pit to a different location in the yard), and have been shopping for stepping stones. 

The tomatoes are producing well, as are the carrots.  Today I made a roasted tomato soup (recipe and pictures to be posted at a later date). The asters are starting to bloom, the sedum is turning a lovely shade of red, and the mums are somehow almost already done.  The black-eyed Susans are still blooming their little heads off, though, so the yard is awash in yellow.  The trees and sumac are just starting to change ever so slightly.  Fall is coming, I keep reminding myself, though it is mid-80s again today.

Until we weed again,

Monday, July 16, 2012

Camping in Colorado and My Midsummer Review

Reading: Since last posting 150 years ago (okay, it's only been just over a month but it seems like longer), I started and finished The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz, and No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels by Jay Dobyns.  3 very different books and I enjoyed them all, though for different reasons.  Right now I don't feel like blogging about books, though, so you will need to stay tuned for my future posts on those.

Eating: Summer is fully upon us.  Here in the upper midwest, we are setting records for high temps and have been sweating with high humidity as well for what seems like months, though I suppose in reality it has only been about 3 weeks.  Summertime in general and heat in particular make me think about eating differently.  First, we have abundant fresh produce this time of the year (this is further enhanced at our house because of our weekly CSA (community-supported agriculture) share delivery, and also because of our vegetable garden.  Second, we tend to avoid turning on the oven and do a lot more grilling.  Third, the lure of soups, stews and casseroles (hotdishes for you Minnesotans!) is not as strong as the temptation of salads - both green and pasta.  I will be posting some summer food recipes, thoughts and suggestions in the upcoming weeks - stay tuned for that as well.

Weeding: Wow.  Weeds grow really, really well in this weather.  Apparently thistles, crabgrass and clover are very drought resistant and heat tolerant.  Cleaning up the flower and veggie beds - deadheading, weeding, cutting back - is even more work when it is 95 degrees with 95% humidity.  We are also working on the stump garden because we now have a plan drawn up!  A friend who is a long-time gardener and awesome planner drew up a layout for the "stump garden" using our input.  There are plans for walkways in and out, a fire bowl and seating area, privacy from the street and incorporating the colors and plants we own or would like to own.  We hope to also add some sort of water feature.  There will be a lovely view from my office window and should be blooms and color for multiple seasons.  Watch for pictures as this project progresses.  Right now, the sweaty job of removing turf and excess soil is in progress.

Travel: Maybe I could call this section "retreating" or something.  For now, it will be just "travel".  Last month we took a driving trip to Colorado for a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park.  After the first 2 days, I was ready to turn around and come home, but it improved significantly after that, so I was glad we continued.  We drove the first night to my mom's in southwest MN (there was a delay of our departure that night because work, and other circumstances out of our control) then from there proceeded south through Iowa - completely benign and uneventful, as you would expect Iowa to be.  We took a little off freeway detour to see the Blue Bunny ice cream factory in LeMars, IA, but did not get any ice cream.  We stopped at a sleepy little town in Nebraska for lunch - Lyons (I pronounced it Lee-own' the way it is in French - probably not how they say it in NE though), and continued on our way.  That afternoon is when the trouble began... 5 miles out of Clarks, NE, the tire pressure monitoring system started to tell E that the left rear tire was getting low.  It should be at about 31 and it was at 28.  By the time we stopped in Clarks at the gas station, it was down to 16 and when we checked again after getting gas, it was 2.  So we unpacked the trunk (which was stuffed to the top with camping gear) and changed the tire to the "compact spare" aka donut.  Someone stopped by then to tell us there was a service station where we could get it fixed, but alas!  It was 4pm on Saturday and it was closed.  We discovered our spare allows us to drive up to 65mph for up to 3000 miles so we continued on the interstate, nearly getting run over by every big truck on the road.  After a failed attempt to find a tire repair place in Grand Island, the only city of good size in the middle of that blessed state, we drove on to Ogalalla where we had a room booked for that night.  After a late dinner at Denny's, a fitful night's sleep, and waffles for breakfast, we drove on through the high plains to the suburb of Henderson, just outside Denver.  This is where we were picking up the wee little camper we were purchasing, direct from the "factory".  Marty, the man who built the trailer, was quite helpful - he determined our hitch was a good 5 inches too low for the trailer but set about building us a new one.  He also directed us to where we could get our tire repaired. I won't go into more detail about the next 6 hours of our time outside Denver other than to say it took a long time but only a little money to repair the tire and get it on the car, Olive Garden tastes pretty darn good when you are hungry, 107 degrees doesn't feel so hot when it is a dry heat, and our hitch is now tall enough to haul the trailer.  We pulled out just in time for it to start raining.  Hard.  But eventually it stopped. We got into Rocky Mountain National Park and to our campsite around 10pm but happily did not have to set up a tent in the dark like we usually do.  With the help of a friendly neighbor camper, we got our trailer set up, blocked and chocked, the airbed inflated and were in bed not too long after.  It was a long 2 first days of the trip but we were happy campers after that.  We relaxed in the campground, drove up to 11,000 feet and got out of breath walking across the parking lot, saw beautiful mountains, alpine lakes, and a herd of elk, hiked several miles and saw more majestic mountains, pristine lakes, colorful flowers and funny little ground squirrels, cooked on a little campstove (no campfire due to the extremely dry conditions), and slept in our compact hard-sided tent on wheels.  We came home by way of hot dry Wyoming, to the surprisingly beautiful Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota where we spent one night in a pine filled campground.  We had a long day's drive across boring South Dakota (truthfully, other than the Badlands and Black Hills, SD is very boring.  Sorry SoDak'ers.) then spent the evening at with my sister and brother-in-law at the campground where they have their (not-small) camper parked for the season.  So much fun to see them!  Hard to get used to the humidity and mosquitoes, though, after having been in hot, dry, wildfire land.  Then we were home.  I will post pictures sometime, in case you have not already seen them on Facebook.  I especially need to post one of the little camper - we do so enjoy it!  I named it Rudy.  The style of camper is called the Roughneck, so Rudy the Roughneck it was.  He seems to enjoy being hauled around by Sadie the Saturn.  They look pretty good together too.

Well, I am off to make dinner now.  As I said before, stay tuned for my reviews of those 3 books, for summer food thoughts and ideas, for pictures of progress on the stump garden and for pictures of the camper and Colorado trip.

Until we eat, read, weed or retreat again,

Friday, June 08, 2012

Sheep, Thai Peanut Sauce and a Little Dirt

Reading: This past week I read a delightful book - Hit by a Farm by Catherine Friend.  The subtitle cracks me up: "How I learned to stop worrying and love the barn".  The author is a friend of my friend Mary who scrap books with the same group I do.  Mary first told me about the book a couple of years ago on our way to a scrap booking retreat and I just now got around to reading it - boy, am I glad I did!  It is the memoir of Catherine and her long-time partner Melissa as they start a sheep farm in southeastern Minnesota.  Melissa's long-time dream is to become a farmer, so they buy a farm, get some sheep, chickens and a couple goats.  Catherine tries hard to be supportive but she is a writer and is from the city.  She likes to be clean and organized.  Farms are not clean and often a bit chaotic.  Together they learn about land and animal care, about how to manage their time and prioritize but also to expect the unexpected.  They learn about shearing and breeding, about birth and death.  They argue and struggle with their relationship, described by Catherine early in the book as a menage a trois between Melissa, Catherine and the farm.  The story is funny and sad, devastatingly frustrating and beautifully inspirational.  I can't wait to read her next book which came out earlier this year (right around the time of the scrap booking retreat).  Mary has already told me that some of the stories in Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep and Enough Wool to Save the Planet involve her and she helped with this book.  Those of you who live or work with young children may be familiar with some of Catherine's other titles: My Head is Full of Colors, The Sawfin Stickleback, The Perfect Nest, and Barn Boot Blues.

For Sunday night book club, we are reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, which I started this afternoon.  It is hot here so I felt like laying on the couch in the air-conditioned living room and reading a book.  Chapter one pulled me right in, so I am off to a good start on this one.

Friday night book club is reading Drowning Ruth by Christina Schwarz, a book I read a few years ago and remember liking but can't for the life of me remember what it is all about.  I will let you know after I re-read it.

Eating: One night last week, we rewarded ourselves for getting our chores done by stopping by Nectar Wine Bar and Bistro for a drink at late night happy hour.  (Really, though, do we need an excuse to go there?)  We were commenting to Justin the bartender how we were sorry to have missed the lemon thyme chicken with peanut sauce appetizer, when he informed us that it was on the menu that night only as a little special!  What luck!  So we ordered some and savored every last bit of the peanut sauce (the chicken is also very tasty - I don't know how Chef Kevin cooks it but is super juicy and grilled to perfection on a skewer).  When we complimented Chef on the food, he asked if we wanted a container of sauce to take home.  Did we?! He brought us a full to-go box of it and advised that it will be good up to 2 weeks in the fridge.  Like it will last 2 weeks!  We knew any chicken we cooked wouldn't be as good as Chef's chicken, so we opted for some Thai peanut noodles instead, stirring the sauce in with some cooked pasta.  Delish.  Now I am trying to figure out how to create a pizza using some more of the sauce.  Never fear - we will finish it off!

Weeding: Last weekend was spent mostly in the garden.  The herbs are doing well in a pot on the front step.  The veggies are all growing nicely - corn, carrots, potatoes, arugula and lettuce are all coming in, the tomato and pepper plants seem to be established.  All is good in the edible department.  The flowers from the swap 3weeks ago are nearly all planted and the ones that are not yet planted are still alive (good, good. Doing well, Hallie!).  Things are blooming and growing everywhere!  We pulled weeds, placed some edging, threw down some mulch, dead-headed, Preened (organic Preen, of course), and played in the dirt. 

To quote Margaret Atwood, from Bluebeard's Egg: "But [...] the point of all this gardening is not vitaminization or self-sufficiency or the production of food, thought these count for something.  Gardening is not a rational act.  What matters is the immersion of the hands in the earth. [...] In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt." 

I like the smell of dirt.

Until we are dirty again,

Friday, June 01, 2012

Feeling Summer

Reading: Since last post, I have finished the Hunger Games trilogy.  Catching Fire went quickly, in just a couple of days.  It moved the story along nicely but really just felt like filler between the first and last books.  Mockingjay was better than I anticipated.  Most people that had read this, at least that I had talked to or saw discuss it, thought it was not the best of the series, so I had pretty low expectations for it.  It exceeded those expectations.  Overall I enjoyed the trilogy and am not sorry that I read it.

Next up is Hit by a Farm - How I learned to stop worrying and love the barn by Catherine Friend.

Eating: It is grilling season, though we need to clean off the grill before we can do that.  I like that part of summer - a couple burgers or brats on the grill, a little salad, maybe some taters cooked up in foil - dinner is served.  We will be cleaning off the grill this weekend, so watch for some recipes for outdoor cooking to follow in the next several weeks.
The CSA will also start delivering in a couple weeks so there will also be veggie reports. 

We are having a potluck at work in a couple weeks (yes, I am going in to the office so those of you thinking it would be a pretty sad potluck with just me in my home office, you can just hush!) and it is a "Take me out to the ballpark" theme.  I love to bring dessert to potlucks and if I can't bring dessert, I am often at a loss as to what to bring.  But what dessert goes with ballpark food?  My first thought was crackerjacks!  It isn't technically a dessert but when I make homemade caramel corn, it is so tasty and sweet, it may as well be dessert.  My coworker was trying to think of ideas of what to bring so I was suggesting a few.  I think I probably got a little obnoxious with my ideas towards the end but here are a couple of them:  Cheese BALL served with pretzel rod "bats", cake or cookies decorated like a baseball, diamond or hat, cotton candy, peanuts, sunflower seeds (or salad with sunflower seeds in it), anything served in a batting helmet, Chips and queso dip (nachos appear to be very popular at the ballpark), hot dogs or other sausages, chewing tobacco (haha!) or Big League Chew bubblegum. What other ideas do you have?

Weeding: We have the veggies and herbs all planted: tomatoes (cherry, roma and beefsteak), peppers (red, yellow and orange bell peppers - still need to get some hot peppers), corn, carrots, potatoes, arugula, lettuce, basil, rosemary, spearmint, garlic chives, oregano, thyme and cilantro.  Hope it all grows!

We spent much of last weekend up at Camp Amnicon in northern Wisconsin, volunteering our time to get camp ready for the summer.  I was pleased because I got to do some weeding and planting there too.  I had done a little walk around when we first got there and thought, "Yikes!  That little flower bed could use some weeding!" so was happy that they asked me to work on that. 

The plant swap 2 weeks ago went pretty well.  I helped to have some pictures of the plants I was offering so people could see what they look like in bloom.  I wish more people had pictures or at least would label their plants.  Oh, well.  I took 15-16 plants and came home with the same amount, but different ones.  I have to get them in the ground this weekend. 

Here are some photos of what is blooming today.  Enjoy!
Painted daisies (pyretheum) in the 'kidney bed' (so named for its shape)

sedum, hardy geranium and lamb's ear on side of the garage

Clematis 'Polish Pride'

Anemone are growing like weeds in the "stump garden" (so named because we used to have a stump there)

Columbine along the deck

Fringed bleeding heart - still blooming though the other bleeding heart are done

Peony - the loveliest of June flowers

Stella d'Oro daylily and some unknown plant (if you know what it is, please tell me!)

Corn flower

close-up of penstemon flowers, just the faintest pink blush on the white flowers

Penstemon 'Husker Red' (I think that is the type anyway)

Perennial salvia (I think)

Front garden

Friday, May 18, 2012

Back in the Bloggin' Saddle

Time to get back in the saddle and resume "normal" blogging.  You may be wondering what else I was doing during the A-Z Challenge, since those posts were made to fit in the alphabet.  I was reading as usual, cooking and eating (though I don't think we tried any new recipes), doing a little knitting, and planning for an annual all-day seminar for the organization for which I am the now the vice president (was secretary but as of yesterday morning, I am now VP - you may address me as Madame VP, if you wish).  I compare preparing for this seminar, and for the other 3 evening meetings we also hold each year, as hosting a wedding reception, for 125-150 people every couple of months. Booking venue, choosing the food, sending the invitations and managing the RSVPs, all while arranging for different speakers for each of these events (one for each of the evening meetings and 4 for the all day seminar).  Truthfully, it is exhausting but worthwhile work which I enjoy, but am glad when it is over.  Kind of like my wedding, really - Glad I did it, and enjoyed the planning and the event, but glad when it was over.  So in addition to that...

Reading: In April I read 3 books and have read another 2 books so far in May.  First was a re-read of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg.  Many people are more familiar with the movie (Fried Green Tomatoes) but this is a delightful book as well.  Such strong, interesting women characters and really just so much going on in this story - some classic scenes where I found myself cheering for the women as they took on some people we all know in real life.  I read it last about 15 years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it again this time.  Even if the book club referred to the characters as "Jessica Tandy" and "Kathy Bates" for the actresses who played some of the main characters in the movie. 

On April 21st I finished the book club selection (Sunday night book club) Room by Emma Donahugue.  I'll admit I had to force myself to read this one at first, but I ended up really liking it.  The story is told from the point of view of five-year-old Jack, who has never seen outside the 11'x11' room he and his mother live in.  To him Room is the world, but to his mother, it is the prison where she has been held for 7 years by a man Jack refers to as Old Nick.  Sounds terrific and uplifting, right?  It is actually an amazing story of the love of a mother and child and of survival despite the depressing situation.  Great discussion for book club.

My "easy" read for April, Miss Pickerell to the Earthquake Rescue by Ellen MacGregor.  This is one I have had since I was a child, but don't remember reading it all the way through before.  Miss Pickerell was a character in an entire series which had her not only going to the rescue in an earthquake but also going to the moon, Mars, the Arctic and on many other adventures.  She is a very no-nonsense lady who knits and drives a model-T hauling a trailer with her cow and cat in it.  Fun story and made me curious about earthquakes.

The next book for discussion at Sunday night book club is another one that I didn't anticipate liking, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall.  I dislike running (anyone who knows me has heard me say that the only reason to run is if you are being chased by something that you don't want to catch you), and am possibly even less interested in reading about running than I am in actually running.  That being said, I actually enjoyed this book.  Mr. McDougall tells a captivating story and gives so many interesting back stories and side stories that all lead up to this one amazing race, that I found myself actually caring about some of the runners and cheering for them.  If you are a runner and have suffered injuries (as you very likely have), I would think you would be interested to hear what he has to say.  And if you are not a runner, you may be inspired to start.  Not that I am.  I still find the idea of running tedious.  Give me 2 wheels and pedals, please.

Most recently I finished a book called Everything by Kevin Canty.  This one I read in nearly record time, starting it one day and finishing during the middle of the night a day later (a bit of insomnia which was NOT cured by this book - darn those interesting books!).  Mr. Canty is a Montana author, and the story takes place in the western part of the state, specifically in the Bitterroot Valley, which is where my grandparents, aunts, etc., live.  I think the Amazon description captures it best and I highly recommend this novel.

"In taut, exquisite prose, Kevin Canty explores the largest themes of life—work, love, death, destruction, rebirth—in the middle of the everyday.
On the fifth of July, RL and June go down to the river with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red to commemorate Taylor’s fiftieth and last birthday. Taylor was RL’s boyhood friend and June’s husband, but after eleven years, June, a childless hospice worker, finally declares she’s “nobody’s widow anymore.” Anxious for a new beginning, June considers selling her beloved house. RL, a divorced empty-nester, faces a major change, too, when he agrees to lodge his college girlfriend, Betsy, while she undergoes chemotherapy. Caught between Betsy’s anguish and June’s hope, the cynical RL is brought face-to-face with his own sense of futility, and the longing to experience the kind of love that “knocks you down.”

Set in Montana, reflecting the beauty of its landscape and the independence of its people, Everything is a shimmering novel about unexpected redemption by a writer of deep empathy and prodigious talents." -
So there are 5 books for you to check out.  Tonight, Friday night book club is discussing The Testament by John Grisham which I read about 13 years ago and will try to dredge up my memories of it to discuss tonight.  It wasn't my favorite book then and I just didn't get around to re-reading it.  I would feel bad about that but since the discussion will last approximately 5 minutes, I am not too worried about it.  This book club is actually more about the gathering and the food.

Weeding: Tomorrow morning is the annual plant exchange arranged by the city.  I have gone, 2-3 times before and have gotten some good plants.  It is fun - fast and furious negotiating and trading and then hauling home the treasures.  I took today off from work, mainly to recuperate from the all-day seminar, but also to get my plants ready for the swap.  This is what I am bringing this year: lamb's ear, penstemon, monarda (aka bee balm), coreopsis, and balloon flower.  In the process of digging up some coreopsis, I disturbed a particularly large ant colony.  The ants were all over my feet and legs, some of them biting.  It reminded me of the scene from one of the Indiana Jones movies where the ants carry the bad guy away.  I took a break to read Catching Fire, eat lunch and smell the lilacs, and will divide more coreopsis once I figure out how to do it without stirring up the ants again.
Monarda (bee not included in plant swap)

Threadleaf coreopsis (apparently thrives near ants)

Penstemon (bird not included)

Balloon flower (look closely for the little "balloons")

Lovely lamb's ear, growing near hardy geranium

Until we read, and weed, again,

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Reflections on the A-Z Challenge

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will know that in April I participated in the A-Z Challenge.  This was a daily (except for most Sundays) blog post, using each letter of the alphabet.  I am a little hazy now as to why I originally decided to join the challenge but I did and now that I have had time to reflect on the month, these are my thoughts on the challenge.

1. It was a lot of work.  My normal posts are usually about one a week.  True, the A-Z posts tended to be shorter and generally about only one topic as opposed to my longer typical posts which can encompass the 2-3 books I am reading, a recipe or two and whatever gardening or creative activity I am involved in that week.  But there were a couple of days, especially early on when I was near the end of my busy day and remembered I had to post.  Some posts were easier to write (if it was a recipe or included references to past posts, for example) but some were difficult and time consuming (I seemed to struggle with ones that had multiple photos and ones about authors where I talked about multiple books).  It is hard to work 8+ hours, get all my chores and social activities in AND blog every day.  Just saying.

2. There were hundreds of blogs in this challenge, and we were to try to visit at least 5 a day. It was tough to keep up with the reading of the other blogs (see time management issues in previous point), reading new blogs, following the other blogs I liked, commenting on the blogs and reading the comments on my own blog. Whew!  That being said, I "met" a few fun bloggers.  I will post links to some of the new blogs I found during the challenge below.  There are also a lot of blogs that I couldn't get out of fast enough (they probably felt the same way about my blog).  I've determined that just because someone has a blog, does not mean that she/he and I have ANYTHING else in common. 

3. I felt like I was writing somewhat differently knowing that the audience was spreading beyond my family and friends.  Sometimes I found myself apologizing or warning about something I had written or written about.  When I mentioned this to a friend, she asked me if the people I was afraid of offending had apologized or warned me when reading their blogs.  They had not, so I felt a bit more free.  "It's my blog and I can rant if I want to" was one of my new mottoes.  Also, "I like what I like and if you don't like it, too, that is not my problem."

4. I was glad I had decided on my topics ahead of time.  It helped me to start thinking about what the post might be about (though some posts went off in a direction I didn't know they were going to take, much like my writing often does.  One example of this was Irises, which suddenly was more about free plants than it was about irises.).  It also helped me keep a fairly even balance between books/authors, plants/flowers, food, and creative pursuits. 

5. The challenge also challenged me to think about why I blog.  There seemed to be a big emphasis from the challenge organizers to read as many blogs as possible, comment on as many as you visited, respond to comments on my blog and visit the commenters' blogs in return, and in general to get my blog out there as much as possible to gain followers.  There was a statement from the organizers that one of their goals is to see each of the blogs in the challenge have at least 100 followers on their sidebar widget.  Well, I am at 15, though I know I have at least another dozen that don't "follow" the blog but do indeed follow the blog and read a lot of (if not all of) my posts.  They follow through Facebook or by checking the blog regularly for new posts.  I appreciate them as much as the followers listed on the sidebar.  So that was a bit of a tangent but back to me thinking about why I blog.  I blog because I like to.  I blogged back in 2003 when I was pretty sure it was only my mom reading my posts because I wanted to.  I like to write, I like to share recipes and books and other junk I am doing.  So I have this blog that I will continue to write even if no one ever reads it again. 

6. In case you are a geek like me and like statistics, here are some fun ones from the challenge.
  •   There were 606 viewings of my blog in April, and about 75 comments.  Since the beginning of the blog, there have been 1385 views. 
  • The post with the most views was N is for Nordic Sweaters and O is for O'Brien with 18.  It is the fifth most popular post of all time (see sidebar on left for other "popular posts").
  • Most of the traffic to the blog last month was from the A-Z Challenge, though visits from my Facebook link were frequent also.
  • Most visits were from the United States, but also a good amount from Canada (I've also discovered I like many Canadian bloggers - it must be a close kinship due to the shared border with Minnesota, or something.), and also some from UK, Trinidad/Tobago, Australia, Ireland, India, New Zealand, Philippines and Singapore.  I love the global reach! 
7.  Will I do the A-Z Challenge again next year?  Maybe.  Don't ask the woman in labor if she will have another child, right?  Maybe knowing what I know now, and thinking about how I might do it differently, I would attempt again.  Would you read it again if I did?

8.  Overall, I guess I am glad I did the challenge.  If nothing else, it got me posting regularly.  If only I could keep that up (seeing that the post prior to this one was a week ago, I don't know if the leopard is likely to change her spots).

And as promised, here are some blogs I found I like while participating in the challenge, as well as a couple of others I already followed before the challenge and really like as well.  Check them out.  Let me know what you thought of the A-Z Challenge and if you would like to see me do this challenge again or another one.

In Which We Start Anew - Full disclaimer - I am related to Jo - she is my cousin-in-law.  Ha-ha!  She is a hoot and has a way with words. 
Walnuts and Pears - Kate blogs about gardening, healthy living, and more.  Her recent post on weedkiller was everything I have ever wanted to say about lawn chemicals but didn't have the words for.
The Odd Particle [Re]View - Kern is one of my new favorite Canadians.  She has a terrific writing style and doesn't cease to amaze me on some of the thinks she thinks.  She unfortunately took a tumble early in the A-Z Challenge and was struggling with some post-concussion symptoms.  I am hoping she is up and blogging again soon. Truly one of my new favorite blogs.
Breathings - Jessica nominated me for an award (The Versatile Blogger award) early in the A-Z Challenge, which I acknowledged but did not do my part of.  I plan to do that later this month, now that I have more time and also have some bloggers to give the award to!
Kent's Bike Blog - Kent is a biker extraordinaire, the kind of biker I have never been and only ever dream to be.  He participated not only in the A-Z Challenge in April but also the 30 Days of Biking Challenge, which meant that not only did he come up with bike rides that correlated to 26 different letters but also biked and blogged about 4 other rides!  Made me almost stop whining about my own busy schedule.  Almost.
Life on the Muskoka River - Cathy cracks me up.  Check out her blog and see if she makes you laugh, too.
Sweet Tea Reads - Danielle and I have similar interests: writing, reading and cooking. 

Okay, well, there are more.  I will post more on another day.  This is enough to get you started.

Until we read again,
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